In the worldly world, we talk about “pleasure” and “happiness”. At heart, we are all utilitarians, trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and striving to be as happy as possible. Very few of us are committed idealists or utopians, so we generally settle for a tolerable balance of pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness.
Religious traditions speak of “bliss” and “joy” as something distinct from worldly pleasure or happiness. Apparently, according to the prophet Isaiah, Heaven and Earth are full of the Glory of God. To taste this glory is bliss, “ananda” in the Sanskrit of the Vedic tradition.
Secular thinkers try to define pleasure and happiness either positively, as “positive affect”, which includes pleasurable physiological effects caused by the release of dopamine or serotonin for example, or negatively, as the absence of pain or negative emotion. Bliss or joy are merely more intense manifestations of positive affect, different in degree but not in kind.
Religious thinkers claim that there is a qualitative and not just a quantitative difference between pleasure and joy. They claim it is a peculiarly “spiritual” feeling, or a spiritual “energy”. For a secularist, this claim cannot be verified due to the simple fact that they do not have these spiritual experiences to compare to their ordinary experiences. All they can do is dismiss the religious claim as hokum.
However, most people, whether or not they profess any religious belief, or consider themselves at all spiritual, have had spontaneous experiences at some point in their lives of pure untrammeled joy, which are clearly pleasurable experiences, but somehow much more than that. Whether or not there is a qualitative difference, there clearly is some continuity between the experience of pleasure and the experience of joy.
So what’s the difference? I would say (I would wouldn’t I?) that pleasure and pain are associated with the Ego Archetypes on the Wheel of Samsara and that joy is associated with the Soul Archetypes on the Orthodox Cross. Pleasure is obviously the raison d’etre of the addict. But there is also pleasure (as well as pain) in all the other realms. There is a certain sadistic pleasure for the demon, a masochistic pleasure for the victim, a complacent pleasure for the muggle, a self-righteous pleasure for the muppet and a vain kind of pleasure for the diva.
Joy, on the other hand, is associated with meaning, which is associated ultimately with self-transcendence. Jordan Peterson talks about walking the line between the known and the unknown, between order and chaos. That’s one way of thinking about it. Another way is in terms of our orientation towards a goal or “telos”, which, although forever receding and ultimately unattainable, confers meaning to our endeavors. It can be pleasurable, but not necessarily.
This is “yoga”, or “spiritual practice”. The four traditional yogas described in the Baghavad Gita are karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga and raja yoga, which roughly translate as the yoga of action, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of Self-inquiry (the “royal road”).
There is bliss and joy in the practice of each of these disciplines, if undertaken in the right spirit. There is joy in selfless action without attachment to results (karma yoga), joy in devotional practices, such as the singing of kirtan and bajan (bhakti yoga), joy in the insights derived from philosophical contemplation (jnana yoga) and joy in Self-realization (raja yoga).
The four yogas correspond to the four archetypes of the warrior (karma yoga), monk (bhakti yoga), philosopher (jnana yoga) and king (raja yoga). And each has its own peculiar joy. I might as well add the joy of the mystic (dhyana yoga) and the joy of the shaman (kundalini yoga) to complete the picture.
When you grasp an important insight, when you synthesize some apparently separate pieces of knowledge into a greater whole, a small burst of bliss is released. There is joy in wisdom. This is the way of the jnani yogi, the path of the philosopher. The pursuit of Truth also involves following your bliss.
However, to be a philosopher, a jnani yogi, you must be open to the Truth in whatever guise it may take. You must engage with ideas contrary to your own and maintain a healthy skepticism towards all points of view, without of course falling into radical skepticism or relativism. You must strive for objectivity and maintain a discipline of dispassionate inquiry, free from emotional attachments.
In other words, you cannot be a muppet. You cannot insult your adversaries, use ad hominem attacks, use emotional reasoning, negative filtering, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, and a whole host of other cognitive distortions. You cannot “no-platform” people or otherwise silence them on ideological grounds.
You cannot be a raja yogi if you are committed to a belief in “Identity Politics”. If you sincerely believe that you are nothing but your externally observable characteristics, sex, race, ethnicity, shoe size, then you cannot be a raja yogi. This way is barred for you. Equally, you cannot be a muggle, who never thinks to inquire into the essence of his being in the first place.
There is some pleasure in being a muggle or a muppet. But there is no joy. Where there is meaning, there is joy. Where there is limited, truncated, pseudo-meaning, there is limited, truncated, pseudo-joy. Where there is no devotion, there is no joy. Where there is no surrendered action, there is no joy. There is just hedonism and nihilism.
Without the transcendent, without God, there is no joy. There is meaninglessness or the meager meaning afforded by idols. There will be some pleasure and there will be some happiness of course. But no yoga, no joy.